------------------------------------------------------------------ THE AIR is much cleaner, thanks in large part to federal standards beefed up in 1990. The government, pushed by environmental and health advocates, now wants to tighten the standards, much to the dismay of automakers, oil companies and several state governors. ------------------------------------------------------------------
WASHINGTON, D.C. - With the stroke of a federal administrator's pen, several hundred communities could soon find themselves tagged with having unhealthy air that violates the Clean Air Act.
Tighter limits for two stubborn air pollutants - ozone and particles of soot and dust - were proposed Nov. 27 by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new standards could force most urban areas and even some rural counties to put costly controls on everything from cars and factories to lawn mowers and barbecue grills.
More stringent rules would follow six straight years of declining smog in many cities, cutting the number of areas with high ozone levels from 98 in 1990 to 74 this year.
Clean Air Act amendments passed in 1990 have significantly reduced pollution, EPA said. But the agency is under pressure from environmentalists and health groups to further reduce pollutants that are known to cause asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, particularly in children and the elderly.
"The current standard (for ozone) is doing something, but it's not tight enough," said Paul Billings of the American Lung Association, which has sued EPA for not adequately protecting public health under the Clean Air Act.
"We need to do a lot more," Billing said. "Everybody realizes that, except a few industries. They're spending millions of dollars. There's no doubt there's going to be a good old-fashioned brawl over this."
Industries, led by automakers and oil companies and backed by many governors, already are crying foul, arguing that the EPA is trying to change the clean-air rules in the middle of the game.
"We've made tremendous progress cleaning up the air," said John Truscott, spokesman for Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican who has written the EPA urging restraint. "The problem we have is EPA keeps moving the bar."
Truscott said Michigan, which in the past two years has cut the number of counties with air violations from 10 to one, would be devastated by new pollution limits, especially if the Big Three automakers based in the state are forced to add expensive new emission controls. "It could kill Michigan," he said.
New cars today are 96 percent cleaner than 1960s models; cutting emissions further would be "like squeezing blood out of a turnip," said Richard Klimisch, vice president of engineering for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the Big Three's lobbyist.
"We've already done all the easy stuff," Klimisch said. For communities to reach lower smog levels, "you really get into doing things like car-pooling, or saying you can't mow your grass" with a gas-powered mower, which produces as much pollution as a one-hour drive, he said.
Still, the EPA seems headed toward stricter limits.
"We expect some disagreement on what our final recommendations may be," said EPA spokeswoman Martha Casey, "but we're ready."
The EPA was under court orders to decide on a new standard for so-called particulates - dust and soot given off by burning fossil fuels - by the end of November.
Advocates for tighter limits say the current standards fail to protect public health.
A Harvard University study has found an average of 1,000 additional hospital admissions for respiratory problems in each of 13 big cities on days in 1993 and 1994 when ozone exceeded the current limit.
Ozone, the main ingredient of warm-weather smog, can cause shortness of breath, coughing and attacks of asthma, bronchitis or emphysema. Ozone is formed when emissions from vehicles, power plants, factories and consumer products combine in sunlight.
As Seattle Times reporter Danny Westneat reported last month, if the new standards are adopted, they would require communities to cut ozone levels by one-third to 0.08 parts per million cubic feet of air. The current standard is 0.12 parts per million. A community violates that standard if levels are higher for more than an hour a year in three consecutive years.
A study by the Big Three, using EPA data, said the agency's proposal would put most urban areas out of compliance. Noncomplying areas would jump from the current 74 to 214.
"Once they do this, it basically puts environmental regulators in control of the economy," said Klimisch. "Most of the places will be thrown into noncompliance and they'll never be able to get out."
Noncompliance only means those communities would have to reduce pollution that forces the elderly and children with asthma indoors on smoggy days, said Billings, a lobbyist for the lung association.
Communities violating the Clean Air Act face stiff fines unless they take steps to cut emissions, such as regular vehicle inspections with forced repairs.
Industries say the cost of measures needed to reach an ozone level of 0.08 parts per million far outweighs the health benefits that would be gained.
A study this year by the American Petroleum Institute estimated that lower ozone levels in the Chicago area might cut health costs by $40 million, but the additional power-plant and factory controls, vehicle maintenance, cleaner fuels, new paints, electric lawn mowers and low-emission barbecues needed to reduce ozone would cost the region as much as $14 billion.
"Obviously it's a very costly standard," said oil lobbyist Al Mannato.
"We believe the ozone problem is being addressed," Mannato said. "There's been a dramatic decrease in emission levels. Industry isn't saying don't reduce pollution. We're saying don't move the goal posts in the middle of the game."
The EPA also announced on Nov. 27 that it will regulate tiny particles of dust or smoke down to 2.5 microns in diameter, and proposed a new standard of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
Both the Big Three study and another by the EPA estimated the proposal would more than double the number of areas violating the particulate standard from the current 82.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that also has taken the EPA to court for failing to protect public health, estimates as many as 60,000 premature deaths are caused annually by particulates.
Environmentalists say opponents of tighter standards are ignoring the problems of those most vulnerable to air pollution, such as children and the elderly.
"What kind of governor writes a letter saying I don't care about asthmatic children in my state?" said the NRDC's Deborah Shprentz.
"Groups like that won't be satisfied until we're in horses and buggies and have no industries in our state," responded Truscott, Engler's spokesman. "We're concerned about kids. But if their parents don't have jobs, that's a concern, too."
(Copyright, 1996, Newhouse News Service)